Is there Hope for the Conflict-Ridden Middle East? [Archives:2008/1182/Reportage]

August 18 2008

The Media Line Staff
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He has authored a wide-range of reports on U.S. Security Policy; served as national security assistant to Senator John McCain; and has held numerous diplomatic assignments throughout the Middle East. In an interview with The Media Line News Agency, this leading analyst shares his views on some of the recent developments in the Middle East and offers an assessment of America's handling of these issues.

TML: If I say the words Mideast conflict, what do you think of?

Anthony Cordesman: First, which conflict, because we're dealing not even with one Arab-Israeli conflict? We're dealing with a series of tensions and some are Arab-on-Arab conflicts, particularly in Lebanon. You're talking about Iraq; you're talking about tensions with Iran and you're talking about problems in terms of terrorism. The fact is you can't prioritize.

TML: The European Union's head of foreign policy Javier Solana is on his way to Iran for another round of talks. Do you think the Europeans latest proposals could bring about a rapprochement between the West and Iran?

AC: The most you can hope for, even if you got an agreement next week, would be to then go from this broad agreement to specifics, and that would be a matter of months. We've seen that with North Korea and other countries. I think the key is there's no reason to give up on the diplomatic option at this point. There's every reason to pursue diplomacy. Is there hope? Yes. Is there any certainty? Of course not. What is the level of confidence? We still don't know.

TML: Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has for the first time begun talking about the need to set a date for an American troop withdrawal from Iraq. What's your view?

AC: There's no clash here in terms of basic goals. When we come to the details, that's when it gets to be very important. One of the key tests may be the Status of Forces Agreement, and to move that forward Prime Minister Al-Maliki has to be able to get it through the Iraqi legislature. He has to have popular support to some extent for any new agreement with the U.S. I think he's laying out the markers for sovereignty and for the end of U.S. occupation, but that doesn't necessarily mean the end of the U.S. aid.

TML: If we look at the Middle East and North Africa today, we see wars in Sudan and Somalia; terrorism and radicalism all the way from Mauritania in the west to Pakistan in the east; the problems with Iran, with Iraq; the failure to have found a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And yet, on the other hand, we have seen moves towards democracy and greater freedom for women in the Middle East during the Bush term in office. How do you think Bush will be remembered in terms of his Middle East policy?

AC: I think that's going to be an interesting issue, because if you look back on the Iraq invasion, which may be the seminal event, there's no question that that was badly planned and badly executed. In terms of the [Israeli Palestinian] peace process, I think the Bush administration needs real credit for bringing this back. The goals set may be optimistic and I suspect they are, [but] I think it's created a climate where the next president, regardless of who is elected, is going to go on with this peace process and is going to see it as an important policy goal. If you look at some of the other issues, we've made progress on the war on terrorism. I don't think you've seen a major increase in terrorist activity. The countries you named have been in trouble almost for my entire lifetime. Is a lot more needed? Yes. Do we need to, among other things, win more support from the Arab peoples in the war against terrorism? That's clear, and that will be a real challenge for the new administration.

TML: For the sake of full disclosure for the next question, we have to say you did work closely with Senator John McCain. In terms of McCain vs. Barack Obama, who do you believe will be better in Middle East policy?

AC: I'm not going to take sides in something where, as a member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, I've spent some 10 years trying to be as objective as possible.

TML: But objectively, what are the differences between senators McCain and Obama?

AC: I think that in broad terms many of the approaches are very similar. The most obvious debate or difference, and both candidates have qualified their position, is over how soon the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq, and in what way. For anyone to talk about these positions as if, as president, either of two very skilled and pragmatic men would in 2009 take the same positions that they do today, I think frankly denies the reality of American politics. We react to reality with pragmatism. When we don't, we get into deep trouble. These are both candidates who are both competent and pragmatic.

TML: Anthony Cordesman, thank you for your time.

About CSIS

At a time of new global opportunities and challenges, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) provides strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers in government, international institutions, the private sector, and civil society. A bipartisan, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC, CSIS conducts research and analysis and develops policy initiatives that look into the future and anticipate change.

Founded in 1962 by David M. Abshire and Admiral Arleigh Burke, at the height of the Cold War, CSIS was dedicated to finding ways for America to sustain its prominence and prosperity as a force for good in the world.

Since 1962, CSIS has grown to become one of the world's preeminent international policy institutions, with more than 220 full-time staff and a large network of affiliated scholars focused on defense and security, regional stability, and transnational challenges ranging from energy and climate to global development and economic integration.

Former U.S. senator Sam Nunn became chairman of the CSIS Board of Trustees in 1999, and John J. Hamre has led CSIS as its president and chief executive officer since April 2000.